Tag: QUILTBAG

Review: The Stars are Legion

There’s definitely something to be said for reading Kameron Hurley’s latest novel, The Stars are Legion, alongside her essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. The Stars are Legion is trying both to enact and to urge political change; it’s a demonstration of, or a metaphor for, the political worldview Hurley sets out in Revolution.

There are very many excellent things The Stars are Legion does which are easy to take for granted because the novel itself does so; so let’s start with those. Its backdrop is the Legion, a fleet of world-ships, journeying to an end no-one can remember any longer, whose inhabitants are at war with each other, fighting for control of the Legion.

Which is all very traditional science-fiction space-opera stuff, except for two things: those ships are organic; and their inhabitants are all women. Hurley doesn’t feel obliged to explain where all the men went, or how reproduction works in the Legion; she’s not particularly interested in pushing the boundaries of how we understand gender: it’s just that everyone is a woman, in the same way that everyone in a Asimov story is a man. This also has the very un-Asimovian corollary that everyone in the Legion is a lesbian – which is, again, not something that Hurley ever marks as unusual: it just is.

I said just now that Hurley’s not particularly interested in gender. That’s not entirely true, though: I think The Stars are Legion is about femininity in a wider sense. I find the organicity of the Legion suggestive in this context, given the age-old association of women with bodies and blood and birth, as opposed to “male” associations with science and reason and thought. And the novel is full of bodies, blood and births: the Legion is dying, and so it’s full of mutants, of women giving birth to monstrosities and eating them, of people hacking their way through flesh walls to get to other parts of the ship, travelling by umbilicuses, eating mushrooms. If flesh is feminine, then The Stars are Legion is defiantly, bloodily, viscerally so. It is feminine science fiction, standing in opposition to more traditional SF novels and stories in which (usually) men explore the chilly depths of space in artificial iron shells, solving problems with The Power of Reason.

And so onto specifics. The heroine of The Stars are Legion is Zan, a member of the Katazyrna, ruling class aboard one of the world-ships. She begins the novel with amnesia: Jayd, a general and leader of the Katazyrna, tells her that she, Zan, has just returned from a failed attack on the Mokshi, a ship with the seemingly unique ability to leave the Legion. Jayd tells Zan that she must go back to reclaim the Mokshi, which will allow the Katazyrna to win the war for control of the Legion once and for all.

(Zan and Jayd are also love interests. This is nice, but not as plot-important as general Internet hype has made it out to be. It just is.)

But before Zan can try attacking the Mokshi again, the Katazyrna ship is invaded by a rival clan, and Zan is recycled – thrown into the bowels of the ship to be taken apart for organic parts. Of course, she manages to avoid the terrible recycling monsters who do this work, and from there she has to make the long slog up to the surface of the world again. During the course of this trek, she meets women from lower levels she never could have guessed existed – women who live entirely different lives to hers, women who have never heard of the Katazyrna or their wars, or even of the Legion.

Firstly, then, this is a novel about a woman who’s severely damaged: by amnesia, by what she thinks is the loss of her world, and generally by the oppressive system she lives in. Hers is always an uphill struggle against all of those factors, and she still gets to be a heroine, she’s still worthy of being an SF protagonist. It’s important to have stories like this one, which tell us that it’s OK not to be OK.

Secondly, Zan’s progress through the lower levels of the world is a process of unfolding and opening her horizons, of exploding the things she thought she knew to be true. There’s a parallel, I think, with Hurley’s essay “What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Being White in America”, in which she describes coming to the realisation that America looks whiter than South Africa only as a result of social policy, of deliberate construction and segregation:

After living in Durban for eight months or so…I had a layover in Minneapolis airport…I realized I felt deeply uncomfortable. Something felt very off…I looked up…and realized what the source of my discomfort was.

Everyone was white.

…Well, of course, I told myself – it’s Minnesota. Of course everyone is white here…

It wasn’t until I went to the food court to get something to eat that I was reminded of the lie.

Because the people working in the food court? Were overwhelmingly non-white.

Hurley goes on to describe

how our government’s programs and policies – even those from just ten or twenty or forty years before – had totally skewed the way we all experience the world

Zan, and the people in the levels below, are unaware of each other because of a system designed to keep them stratified. This ignorance makes Katazyrna rule deeply unjust: because their engaging in war with their neighbours jeopardises a whole ecosystem with no interest in, or even knowledge of, the fight. (There’s a point to be made here, surely, about politicians’ power squabbles in the wake of, say, the Brexit referendum.) And it’s partly this knowledge of injustice that keeps Zan going despite the temptations of despair: the novel is adamant about the importance of fighting a broken system however hopeless it looks, because not to fight is to be complicit. Again, this is a theme of The Geek Feminist Revolution: from “Where Have All the Women Gone: Reclaiming the Future of Fiction”:

I’m a grim optimist. I understand that the road to a better future is long and bitter and often feels hopeless. Yes, there is a warm gooey core of hope I carry with me at the very center of myself, and it is the hope of someone who knows that change is difficult, and feels impossible, but that even a history which has suppressed and erased so much cannot cover up the fact that change is possible.

I think, though, we have a potential problem here in the fact that the novel centres power. That is, our viewpoint character is Zan (and, partially, Jayd), who’s a member of the ruling class of her world, who has the privilege that the women on the lower levels lack. Her trek back to the surface of the world may be long and difficult, but at the end of it she genuinely does have the political power to make unilateral decisions, changing the entire Legion single-handedly.

What does resistance to oppression look like if you are not in Zan’s position? What if you are one of the women from the lower levels, and you find out that not only are you being oppressed from above, you’re oppressing and exploiting those below you, because of the very nature of the system you’re living in? That, after all, is where most of us tend to find ourselves in reality: without the power to effect major change single-handedly, without the possibility of neat narrative closure in our lifetimes; possibly struggling in a way that’s genuinely futile. Hurley doesn’t seem aware of her character’s privilege, ultimately; or of the fact that using the women of the lower levels (well-drawn as they are) to push Zan to realisations about the world she’s living in is itself exploitative. The plot structure of The Stars are Legion is actually far more conservative than its content, which is a shame.

Still, let me emphasise again: there are many, many things about the novel which are interesting, important, innovative, defiant. I’m glad it exists; and if there’s still some way to go, it doesn’t mean that the journey’s been wasted.

Doctor Who Review: The Doctor Falls

So: on Sunday I visited the Barbican’s exhibition “Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction” (which is excellent, by the by, and produced a few fangirl moments for me). One of the things the exhibition makes abundantly clear is the extent to which science fiction is a genre rooted, problematically, in colonialism: its roots are in Jules Verne-y tales of imperial adventure, in which Western gentleman scientists visit the unexplored corners of, say, Darkest Africa, and find dinosaurs and strange monsters to be conquered or exploited for the good of Queen and Country.

We can situate Doctor Who in this tradition, too. (Oddly, the exhibition skips almost entirely over Doctor Who, possibly because it doesn’t quite know what to do with it.) The Doctor is a white, straight man, usually old, who flies about the universe in a 1960s police box which these days symbolises Britishness.

That is, he may be canonically a Time Lord, and thus country-less; but in spirit he is definitely British. He flies around the universe, sight-seeing, exploring, boldly going, ands generally sorting out other people’s problems for them. He’s much too civilised to fight, and avoids doing so by outwitting his enemies using his technological superiority. He also Knows Best, most of the time. He is, in other words, a manifestation of a particular fantasy of British superiority over everyone else, ever.

(Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves.)

There’s often more to Doctor Who than that, of course, but that’s the basic template. Or a basic template, at any rate.

I’m interested in making this overt, in relation to The Doctor Falls, because I think that Steven Moffat’s finale to the Twelfth Doctor’s escapades and his own involvement with Doctor Who is engaged in deconstructing a lot of what makes the show what it is.

For instance: isn’t it interesting that this final episode takes place on a colony ship? And not just any colony ship, either: it’s a ship that’s become stuck (outside a black hole) before it even managed to pick up its colonists; the colonialist project, mankind’s conquering of space, frozen and stagnated before it’s begun. Not only that, either: because the colonists begin to turn on themselves, enhanced human Cybermen fighting “normal” humans (and look how those humans are constructed as American pioneers, which is to say colonialists, in dress, architecture and outlook) in a spectacular self-destruct which the Doctor sees as inevitable in any human society. (Wherever there are humans, there will eventually be Cybermen.) That’s a self-destruct of the show’s underlying ideology of colonialist exploration, of technological superiority, of progress. Even the Doctor is cut off from his TARDIS, the mode of transport that defines who and what he is.

This ideological dissolution of the show’s Whoishness is compounded in other, smaller but not less significant ways. Look at the Doctor’s refusal to regenerate at the end of the episode: another kind of stagnation that undoes the very essence of what the Doctor is, a palimpsest of personalities made up of hundreds of often contradictory episodes. (The show has the man’s name on it, after all.) Look at the Missy/Master side-plot: Moffat squanders the narrative potential generated by the Master’s appearance at the end of World Enough and Time by having the Doctor foil his plan almost immediately, so that the Master is reduced to purposeless, sterile evil, destroying his future self to prevent her standing with the Doctor. The parallel with the ending to The Last of the Time Lords only accentuates how the mighty is fallen: from a plot that stretched to the end of the universe and back in that episode to petty, self-involved irrelevance that destroys its own future.

And, finally, look at the dissolution of the little ka-tet that has formed the core of this season of Doctor Who. Nardole is left behind on the dying colony ship, fighting a war he cannot win. (I wonder if Moffat actually realises that this is what the Doctor has done by taking the TARDIS to Antarctica? Even if Nardole and the colonists make it eventually to the bridge, they will be unable to leave.) And Bill, pointedly and significantly, leaves the Doctor behind; escapes into a new relationship and a new mode of being which is anti-colonial, insomuch as it specifically excludes the paradigm of the white straight male explorer. This step into the future is pretty much the only note of hope in the entire episode. Having comprehensively dismantled the ideological framework of the show, Moffat gestures at what might come next – something very different, something that breaks Doctor Who and remakes it again.

There’s been a lot of speculation in the wake of World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls that the next Doctor might be female; and plenty of ambivalence as to what that might mean for the show. It’s clear, I think, from this episode that a female Doctor would represent a symbolic end for Doctor Who – that is, an end to the colonialist and misogynistic ideological structures on which it’s implicitly built.

But would it, as Andrew Rilstone asserts, mean that the future could only ever be female, lest a male replacement seem to imply that a female Doctor is inferior?

I think it depends on what incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall does with Moffat’s deconstruction of Doctor Who. I think, from here – from that image of Bill and Heather stepping into the sky together – it’s possible to imagine a reconstruction of the show, with a woman at its centre, that’s inclusive enough, that’s anti-colonial enough, that it opens a way for the Doctor to be any gender, or none, without the implication that any of them are inferior; a reconstruction that exists outside the need for such logics. It’s also possible to imagine Doctor Who continuing much as it always has done: with a female Doctor who cannot help but be compared to her male predecessors.

It remains to be seen, then, what the ultimate “meaning” of Moffat’s deconstruction of Doctor Who will come to be – whether it creates a new future for the show or just represents a creator at the end of his tenure wrecking things for his successor.

Doctor Who Review: World Enough and Time

This review contains spoilers.

Well, this is a disappointing note on which to end – or, rather, to begin to end – Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor, and a tenth season which has been markedly better than previous ones.

World Enough and Time is a Moffat episode through and through: I can’t think of a better metaphor for his superficial, sleight-of-hand storytelling than the way that a brilliantly well-judged cliffhanger and two stonking performances from Michelle Gomez and John Simm mask a plot that doesn’t work, some irritatingly show-offy metafictional dialogue and, to round it all off, a dollop of old-fashioned, abusive sexism.

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

The premise: the Doctor, in his infinite wisdom, has decided to set Missy a test. He’s “grazed through” some spacey-wacey distress calls, picked “a good one” and sent her out, with the grudging support of Bill and Nardole, to deal with it, just as the Doctor would do.

The distress call has come from a four-hundred-mile-long colony ship caught in the gravitational well of a black hole. It’s reversing – very, very slowly. That’s not the reason for the distress call, as we find out from the distressed blue janitor who pops up to provide some exposition. The ship, it turns out, is brand new, straight from the shipyards, and is on its way to pick up some colonists. (See also Smile, the second episode of this season, in which, you’ll remember, the robot-city had yet to be populated by the human diaspora.) Two days ago, half of its skeleton crew disappeared to the other end of the ship – the end furthest from the black hole – to, um, engage the reverse thrusters or something. They never came back. Instead, hundreds of new life forms appeared on board the ship: monsters attached to IVs who killed the rest of the crew – except the janitor.

At this point, the janitor shoots Bill, hoping to stop the creatures. The Doctor leaps out of his TARDIS, having given Missy all of five minutes to manage the task he’s set her, only to see Bill being whisked off by the IV monsters to be “fixed”. The Doctor takes up the expository thread, revealing that the unimaginable gravitational energies of the black hole are doing weird things with time: time is running faster at the other end of the ship, away from the black hole, than it is at the end nearest to the black hole.

So, the Doctor concludes, the hundreds of new life signs that have appeared on the ship’s monitors are, in fact, the skeleton crew’s descendants!

Moffat is relying on us all to be too dazzled and confused by the idea that time runs differently near to a black hole (which sounds weird enough to be true, though I’ve no idea if it actually is) to notice that this explanation makes no sense whatsoever.

Think about it from the point of view of the crew who go to the other end of the ship. They obviously managed to engage the reverse thrusters, because the ship is, in fact, reversing. So, what? They get the ship reversing, and then, knowing that it’s still in trouble, they don’t contact their colleagues, or send someone to the top of the ship? They just, what, start having sex? And then completely forget what they were there for in the first place? Presumably driving a colony ship is an important job. Presumably you have to prove that you are responsible and professional before you’re allowed to do it. Logically, all that should have happened with the time difference is that the crew returned in an unfeasibly short amount of time – say, ten minutes to the people nearest the black hole, with the travellers having spent eight hours or so in their frame of reference at the other end of the ship – and, having worked out the issue, everyone stayed together at the top of the ship until it all got sorted out.

I have many more questions about the plot, but I don’t want to spend the rest of the night writing this. Let’s talk about sexism instead.

There are two women in World Enough and Time, both regular characters, both notionally “strong” – going by their backstories and their overt characterisation. The episode passes the Bechdel test. Missy’s supposed to be in charge of the whole party, backed up by a team (Bill and Nardole) that is 50% female.

But this is a Moffat episode. So of course everything goes horribly wrong on Missy’s watch (and it’s her fault – well, her past self’s fault – even though she can’t remember that), and of course the Doctor doesn’t even give her a chance to make it right. Missy spends the rest of the episode following the Doctor around. She can’t even remember the rather vital piece of information that she’s been on this ship before, in a previous incarnation; no, she has to be reminded of this fact by a man (albeit a man who’s also her own past self).

But it’s Bill who really draws the short straw. Stuck down at the wrong end of the ship, she passes years trapped in a grimy hospital with a weirdly 1950s aesthetic, her agency circumscribed by a mysterious male doctor and a male comedy Russian. Oh, and by the Doctor himself, who has planted a message in her subconscious: “Wait for me.”

We’re supposed to read the Doctor’s behaviour as cod-romantic (not real romantic, obviously, because, as the season has been at pains to remind us several times an episode, Bill is gay). At the very least, it’s supposed to be – sweet, I suppose. Caring. Nice.

It’s not. It’s creepy. It’s an invasion of privacy. (Her actual subconscious, remember.) It’s controlling. I’m put in mind again of the Doctor from Knock Knock, the Doctor who refused to leave Bill’s home, even though she asked him to in a way that made it clear she was drawing boundaries.

And it’s ultimately fatal. Bill spends years waiting for the Doctor. She becomes, in fact, another Girl Who Waited; another woman throwing her life away, passive, for a man with so much more in his life. Then she gets turned into a Cyberman (Cyberwoman?); for that’s what the IV monsters are; early Cybermen. The Doctor finds her, and is horrified; her robotic line is, “I waited”. But look at that scene. The reveal, the Doctor’s reaction, the single manipulative tear trickling from CyberBill’s eye. We already know what’s happened to Bill; it’s been teased in the trailers, and the mysterious 1950s doctor has shown her, and us, something that’s obviously that handle across the top of the Cybermen’s heads. This isn’t about Bill, who’s been operated on without her consent and doomed to a life of pain. This is about the Doctor, and how it affects him. This is the literal definition of fridging.

THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON, BY THE WAY.

(Also, if this is the end of Pearl Mackie’s Doctor Who career, it is a sad waste of an interesting character.)

The last thing I wanted to touch on was the metafictional play Moffat’s going for early in the episode, when Missy is essentially filling the role of the Doctor. “I’m Doctor Who,” she says, making fans across the country wince in unison. And when Bill protests – “He’s called the Doctor, so” – she explains:

He says, I’m the Doctor, and they say, Doctor who? See, I’m cutting to the chase, baby. I’m streamlining. I’m saving us actual minutes.

This is Moffat explaining a fifty-year-old joke to us – a joke that a) is the whole point of the show’s title, and b) got stretched almost to breaking point during Matt Smith’s Doctorship.

I get the impression that this is supposed to be clever. And, to be fair, we’ve seen the idea of Missy as metafictional narrator before, in The Witch’s Familiar; but in that episode it was there to do something interesting with the idea of Doctor Who, and the idea of Missy as transgressive and anarchic. Here, it feels like just a smug wink at the camera; though, of course, this episode is only half of the season’s final story, and next week’s episode might expand the metafiction somewhat.

It’s solely because of the Master and Missy that I’m actually quite excited to watch next week’s episode. As I said at the beginning of this post, John Simm and Michelle Gomez are absolutely the redeeming features of World Enough and Time: the Master/Missy is an infinitely more interesting character than Capaldi’s dour, abusive Doctor, and, despite everything, I can’t wait to see what they get up to on Saturday.

Theatre Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2

This review contains spoilers.

It feels impossible to review Harry Potter and the Cursed Child without first acknowledging the downright strangeness of the fact that it’s a play at all.

This is, after all, Harry Potter. It could have been any damn thing it wanted to be.

The franchise may have been born in Britain, but at this stage it’s basically an international phenomenon, with an international following. The Potter fandom is definitely one of the largest and most significant anywhere.

And only a tiny fraction of that fandom will ever be able to experience what’s being called “the eighth instalment” – part of the canon – in the Potter franchise as it’s supposed to be experienced.

There is a book, of course. (Inevitably.) But let’s be honest: Cursed Child is not Shakespeare. It is not Pinter. It is not even Noel Coward. In short, it’s not the sort of play whose strength lies in its dialogue, or its insights into the human condition. It’s more like Chicago, or Les Miserables: its strength lies in spectacle, its ability to conjure emotion through stagecraft. To read Cursed Child is to miss out on what actually makes it good.

And yet: theatre is uniquely expensive. Actually going to see Cursed Child, for most people, will involve not just the ticket cost (I think the cheapest tickets are £30 each for both parts) but also travel expenses, food and at least one night’s stay in London. And that’s if you get the Saturday tickets, which allow you to see both parts on the same day, but which are also the most in-demand. If you can only get weekday tickets, you’re looking at probably two days off work and two nights in London.*

There are families with Potterhead children – or, indeed, Potterhead parents – for whom the cost of a hardback book is beyond them.

Creators are free to do whatever they like, of course (especially if they are gazillionaires), but this particular creative decision does seem to have its roots in generating hype through exclusivity (the team behind the show are even running a patronising #KeepTheSecrets campaign). Why else make something that most of your fanbase are never going to see?

Let’s move on to the show itself, for we cannot rant all night.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a story about fathers and sons. It begins with the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which, as you probably remember, Harry sent his son Albus off to Hogwarts worrying about which house he would get into at school. This, then, is Albus’ story: son of the famous Harry Potter, always unable to live up to that legacy; sorted into Slytherin, a rubbish flier, almost friendless. A disappointment (so he thinks) to his famous father.

It’s also Scorpius’ story: son of Draco Malfoy, and unable to escape that legacy; friends with Harry Potter’s son, much to his father’s contempt.

Scorpius and Albus feel like losers. As a result, they’re manipulated into going back in time using a stolen Time-Turner to rescue Cedric Diggory, who they see as another “spare”, someone who didn’t need to die.

Their meddling with time has predictably disastrous results. In one alternative future, Albus got sorted into Gryffindor and is forced to break up his friendship with Scorpius; in another, Voldemort won the Battle of Hogwarts, killed Harry Potter and took over the school. Meanwhile, the boys’ parents are going out of their minds looking for them, and trying at the same time to deal with the unexplained resurgence of dark creatures across the wizarding world.

Cursed Child has quite a lot in common with the later Potter books: it has no discernible structure – being more a succession of “and then”s – and, seemingly, no particular project beyond the fannish question of “what would Harry/Draco be like as a father?” The plot, specifically, becomes ever more byzantine as we wade into Part 2, throwing in an unnecessary extra twist in the form of the daughter of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange (instantly distracting everyone in the audience with the entirely unwanted image of Voldemort having sex, because really?), who wants to bring back Voldemort by going back in time and stopping him attacking the Potters. Which means the entire cast – Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Draco, Albus and Scorpius – all have to go back in time too and make sure that he does kill the Potters. My question is: doesn’t this radically alter the moral universe of the series? Doesn’t it mean that every time we read about Godric’s Hollow, we now have to imagine everyone there watching it happen – and doing nothing?

The play doesn’t really answer these questions, because it doesn’t seem terribly interested in thinking about how the mechanics of its time travel works. In Prisoner of Azkaban, everything that happened stayed happened: that’s how Harry survived the Dementor attack, casting the Patronus on his second time round the loop to save the version of himself that was going round the loop the first time. We can argue about whether or not time travel actually works like that (as the Resident Grammarian likes to), but at least it’s consistent. Whereas Cursed Child treats time travel as much more like a McGuffin that lets us perform various fanfic-type thought experiments with the franchise: what if Ron and Hermione never got together? What if Voldemort won the Battle of Hogwarts? And so on. Albus and Scorpius hop between timelines like alternative universes, with no particular regard for causality – except in the one case where it’s plot-convenient for something clever to happen with time travel. (It involves a blanket and some spilled potion, for readers who have seen the play.) Using time travel but skirting the thorny issues it raises seems like a) a waste, and b) cheating.

I’ve now bitched about Cursed Child for almost a thousand words. And yet, in all honesty, I loved it. Because it is very good – certainly better than the later Potter books – at being a fanwork. It’s aware, at a fundamental level, that for a huge majority of its audience Harry Potter isn’t just a fantasy series they happened to enjoy: it’s a narrative whose symbols are, for better or for worse, embedded deep in our psyches. It deploys those symbols as myth to press its audience’s buttons, so to speak. It doesn’t need to explain why stumbling upon Dementors at Hogwarts is bad, beyond bad; it just needs to put those Dementors there, with a suitably menacing soundtrack, to evoke fear and horror and suspense. The audience – including me – gasped when beloved characters’ names were mentioned in unexpected contexts; laughed at franchise in-jokes; cried at emotional bits that got their force not from any particular brilliance in the script-writing but because of the history we have with the characters. For example: Snape sacrificing himself in one of the alternative pasts to bring about the “correct” one again, and Scorpius telling him that he’ll be remembered as a hero. For example: Harry’s awful recurring nightmares about Voldemort and the cupboard under the stairs. The reason the play doesn’t have a single coherent project or structure is that it is, instead, a collection of resonant moments, continually reaching back to the original series for their emotional force. And its power in doing so is increased exponentially by the fact that it’s a shared experience: all those fans, having all those emotions at the same time – it’s like an emotional amplifier. This is something only theatre can do.

I haven’t yet mentioned the acting or the stagecraft, on the principle of saving the best till last. Because it’s really these things that bring the production alive. Anthony Boyle as Scorpius is easily the standout performance: weird, hunched and often a little scary – and full of pathos, too. Jamie Parker as Harry Potter is also fantastic – what a change it makes to have a decent actor playing Harry, bringing the full force of the character’s angst and trauma right to the fore. (This is hands-down one of the best things about the play, too: that we see Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, struggling with his traumatic past, and struggling with being a father; that he’s still able to make strong decisions despite it. It’s OK not to be OK.)

Music and dance are important to the play, too, holding those emotional moments and amplifying them further. My favourite scene (out of many contenders) was one in which Scorpius and Albus, forbidden to be friends, climb up and down and over staircases being shunted around on wheels by other members of the cast, to the soundtrack of a bass-led Imogen Heap instrumental track. It’s a beautiful sequence, one that really brought home to me that I was watching a love story of sorts. (Incidentally, I will forgive J.K. Rowling practically everything if Scorpius and Albus turn out to be bisexual and become boyfriends.) Scene transitions are made with much cloak-swishing; Albus’ confusion in a Charms lesson is rendered by students dancing gracefully around him while he flails clumsily. It’s a show constantly on the move, accentuating its lead characters’ isolation. And the magic! The production team have used every resource at their disposal to make objects fly, portraits move, people turn into other people. There’s one particular effect that neither I nor my friend could work out, and for all I know it could have been actual magic: whenever the characters used the Time-Turner the whole theatre seemed to vibrate, the air distorting like a bubble. It was astonishing, and wonderful.

I felt utterly heartsick for a while after seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, reluctant to leave its enchantment despite its very real problems. And that makes me angry: because this is not something that any Potterhead should miss. And so many will. If you can, go and see it.

*I’m lucky enough to live and work in central London, and I saw the shows on a Thursday and a Friday night. It cost me about £50 to see the two parts: £30 for one ticket, about £10 for four Underground fares, about £10 for two dinners at Wasabi. £50 is not necessarily a bank-breaking sum, but nor is it a trivial amount.

Doctor Who Review: The Eaters of Light

I’m really not sure about The Eaters of Light.

On the one hand: what a fantastic name – a name to go along with a fantastic symbolic set-up.

On the other hand: I think it has to muddle its moral world somewhat to get to that set-up.

It’s the second century AD. The Doctor and Bill have rocked up in Scotland to settle an argument about what really happened to the Ninth Legion of the Roman Empire (which, to save you a trip to Wikipedia the Font of All Knowledge, disappears from surviving Roman records round about 120 AD). The Doctor thinks they were destroyed by the Pictish army. Bill believes they escaped. They separate, and tramp off in search of clues for their respective hypotheses. This is, as we know, always a good idea in a mysterious historical time period.

After a deal of mild peril and a foray into local folklore, it transpires that the Ninth were destroyed by the titular Eaters of Light: interdimensional locusts, as the Doctor dubs them, clustering Lovecraftianly at cracks in space-time, ready to come into our world and eat the sun. For three generations a local tribe of Picts have held the interdimensional gate against the Eaters, using a temporal trick of the gate to extend their lifespans – a couple of seconds within the mound that houses the gate amounts to a couple of days outside it. But the current gatekeeper, a young woman named Kar, has let one of them through, to destroy the army colonising her country. This, obviously, is A Bad Thing, and the Doctor comes up with a cunning plan to lure the creature back to its dimension.

There is one excellent scene which I would like to commend to your attention before I start complaining. Temporarily trapped with some deserters who are all that remain of the Ninth Legion, Bill comes out to Cornelius, the Roman soldier who’s obviously interested in her In That Way. “This is probably just a really difficult idea,” she says. “I don’t like men…Just women.” “Ah! You’re like Vitus, then!” Cornelius chirps, unperturbed. “He only likes men!” Cornelius himself is (what we would think of as) bisexual: “I’m just ordinary. You know, I like men and women.”

I just want you to think about that for a minute.

This is a prime time, popular science fiction show.

This is a show that spent last season punishing its strong women and blithely ignoring its vaguely racist undertones.

This is a show whose first episode this season made the lesbian love interest a literal possessive alien.

Not only is it now giving secondary characters non-heteronormative sexualities for non-plot reasons, it’s also doing the conceptual work to recognise that our sexual norms are culturally specific; further, that our assumptions about historic sexual norms basically erase non-normative people from history. (I don’t know enough to say whether Romans really thought bisexuality the norm, but it doesn’t seem hugely unlikely.)

And it’s doing all this in a two-minute throwaway scene that has nothing to do with the plot.

This is brilliant.

Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t extend that conceptual work to the bits that actually are plot-relevant. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the episode knows where it wants to get to: the Ninth Legion and the Keeper of the Gate, Romans and Picts, fighting the Eaters of Light, together, forever. Music under the hill, for those to hear as will listen. The crows, remembering down the centuries: “Kar! Kar!” Very Celtic. Very pretty. Very mythic. It’s just that, to get there, it has to do some painful-looking moral contortions.

The Eaters of Light picks up the theme of desertion from last week’s episode, Empress of Mars. Here, at least, Bill says to the Roman soldiers what we instinctively felt she should also have said to Captain Godsacre last week:

You’re not cowards. You’re scared. Scared is fine. Scared is human.

But, you know, I think that sentiment would probably have meant more if the soldiers of the Ninth hadn’t redeemed their desertion, narratively speaking, by sacrificing their lives in an eternal fight against monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions; just as Captain Godsacre redeemed his past desertion by laying down his life in the service of a warrior race. So The Eaters of Light has the same problem as Empress of Mars: it co-opts the ideological structures of colonialism, invisibly, to make martial endeavour and sacrifice the “right” atonement for deserting the colonial project.

And, speaking of colonialism: the Doctor’s treatment of Kar, the Keeper of the Gate, struck me as deeply patronising and unsympathetic. Here is a woman – hardly more than a child, actually, but still – who has lost many of her people and much of her land to the Romans. Sure, she did release an interdimensional locust on the unsuspecting Earth – but then the Romans sent an army of five thousand to kill some Scottish farmers, as Bill puts it. The point being: none of the Ninth Legion ever get the kind of condescension and scorn the Doctor unleashes on Kar, who is, after all, de facto leader of her people. And the Ninth Legion are colonisers. Ultimately, the best answer the Doctor has for colonialism is “you’re all behaving like children, get over it,” which would seem to apportion blame equally to colonisers and colonised. This is, self-evidently, stupid.

The most egregious contortion the episode makes, though, is when the assembled cast start to discuss who’s going to guard the gate from now on. The Doctor points out that he is functionally immortal, compared to puny human lifespans; he can literally guard the gate forever.

Now, the moment he points this out the episode has written itself into a corner. Because, according to the logic of the story, this is actually the most sensible and the most moral course to take. The universe will be protected from the Eaters of Light for eternity, and the Picts won’t have to sacrifice themselves, generation after generation, any more, which is really what the Doctor is about. But the Doctor obviously can’t go and stand in a Scottish cairn for the rest of his eternity, because for one thing the BBC still has lots of perfectly good money to make from him.

The episode can only get itself out of this corner by making one of its characters do something, well, out of character. And because the Doctor is the Doctor and therefore an untouchable moral authority, it’s Bill who’s made to do the same thing she did at the end of The Pyramid at the End of the World: to whit, sacrifice a world – a universe, in this case – for love of the Doctor.

To put it another way: this smart, empathetic, deeply morally engaged character thinks the Doctor, after ten episodes, is literally worth more than the universe.

“This isn’t your fight,” she says to him, weakly, ignoring the fact that the whole point of Doctor Who is him getting involved in fights that aren’t his. And when she says “this isn’t your fight”, what she’s actually saying is: it’s these people’s destiny to sacrifice themselves. Let them die in a strange universe – despite the fact that you could defend the universe better than they could.

I’m sure this wasn’t the intended effect. I think this was hasty writing designed to bring about a specific ending, an undoubtedly resonant combination of symbols. That doesn’t change the fact that the episode fundamentally weakens Bill’s moral authority as the Doctor’s companion, as well as our perception of the Doctor’s moral judgement. It doesn’t work. And that’s a shame.

Review: The Glass Republic

This review contains spoilers.

I wonder if Tom Pollock wanted to call his book The Mirror Empire – a much more appropriate title than the one the book’s got – but saw it was taken?

The Glass Republic picks up some time after the events of The City’s Son. This time, it follows Parva “Pen” Khan, Beth’s best friend, who’s suffering from PTSD and substantial facial scarring after her possession by the Wire Mistress in the previous book. For four months, unbeknownst to anyone else, she’s been talking to her own reflection: a literal doppelganger who lives on the other side of the mirror, in the mirror-city of London-under-Glass, populated by reflections.

When mirror-Parva goes missing, Pen decides to follow her through the mirror. In London-under-Glass, it turns out, her scars make her stunningly beautiful: facial symmetry is commonplace behind the mirrors, whereas asymmetry is rare and valued, an automatic ticket to aristocracy. Pen is mistaken for her missing doppelganger, and she becomes drawn into a life as the face of the Looking-Glass Lottery, an annual event which gives one lucky underclass, symmetrical Londoner the gift of asymmetry, and fame.

The Glass Republic is a dystopia, then, a very simple black-and-white one in which power is distributed and maintained according to physical characteristics, the underclasses kept in check by the tantalising, almost-but-not-quite unattainable hope of betterment. Its central gimmick – flipping our standards of beauty around so that symmetry is ugly and asymmetry beautiful – is structurally the same one Malorie Blackman used in Noughts and Crosses (in which black people are privileged and white people treated as second-class citizens): functionally, its point is that binary value systems like black/white or ugly/beautiful are arbitrary structures inevitably used as tools of oppression. It’s not a complex or particularly nuanced world, and in that respect I don’t think it’s as interesting a novel as The City’s Son.

However, like the previous book, The Glass Republic is doing some important work representationally. Pen is a practising Muslim, and Pollock continues to make that a significant part of how she relates to the world without it being the be-all and end-all of her character. (Note: this is, of course, from my own white Western perspective.) In particular, an understated but ever-present tension in the novel is Pen’s own knowledge that her scars will make it vastly more difficult for her parents to arrange a marriage for her. And that intersects interestingly, too, with the romance that’s brewing throughout The Glass Republic between Pen and her London-under-Glass lady-in-waiting Espel. Pen’s never thought of herself as gay before, and her realisation is well-done: a moment of surprise, but not one she obsesses over too much. She’s got a doppelganger to save, after all.

It’s interesting, too, that both The City’s Son and The Mirror Empire have a scene in which The Right Thing to Do trumps romantic love – and that in both cases this is something that the romantic interest actually encourages. In The City’s Son, Filius asked Beth to kill him, to bring the Chemical Brotherhood to the fight to destroy Reach; in The Mirror Empire, Espel asks Pen to let her die and reveal London-under-Glass’ Terrible Secret to its people. It’s a much-needed corrective to a media culture which holds romantic love as absolutely sacred – even, and especially, if the lovers have known each other for all of a week. For Pollock, romantic love is important, but some things are more, or differently, important.

And it’s rare to read a fantasy heroine, even an urban fantasy heroine, who’s suffering from PTSD, which is ridiculous when you think about it. In Pen we have a heroine who’s not unaffected by it, but who’s finding ways to deal with it: she’s strong despite it; she doesn’t let it stop her fighting injustice. In other words, she feels like a real person, dealing with real shit.

The Glass Republic is not a perfect book. (Honestly, what is?) It’s not even particularly up my street; I originally picked it up thinking it was something else. But if you’re looking for YA urban fantasy that’s smart about representation and neoliberal structures of oppression, you could genuinely do a lot worse than Pollock’s series. I’m not sure yet if I’ll be reading the third and final book, Our Lady of the Streets, but I’m reasonably sure I won’t hate it if I do.

Ten Books I Should Have Put Down

  1. Pamela – Samuel Richardson. The problem with Pamela is Pamela, which is a pretty critical problem for a book named after its protagonist to have. She is whiny, sanctimonious, weedy and indecisive. And tedious. Ugh. Of all the books written in the eighteenth century, this had to be one of the most important? Why?
  2. Ulysses – James Joyce. “It’s a masterpiece!” everyone says. “The defining work of twentieth-century literature!” Maybe; but it is also interminable, navel-gazing twaddle, and I got absolutely nothing out of reading it cover to cover.
  3. The Prelude – William Wordsworth. I thought I liked the Romantics, until I read Wordsworth’s autobiography in verse. Then I realised I much preferred the Modernists. The Prelude just doesn’t sing like poetry should. And, yes, I appreciate it must be tricky writing a whole book in blank verse, but Shakespeare managed it without sending his audiences to sleep.
  4. Middlemarch – George Eliot. I think I’m just taking out all my rage on my university reading lists. Middlemarch is like Dickens, except without the humour, the life, the warmth; it’s like Austen without the compressed wit, the angry sarcasm. It’s dry and dull and long.
  5. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline. This is just one of the most utterly self-involved books, and it doesn’t even have the benefit of good writing. It can see nothing which isn’t white, male and straight. It thinks white-washing is the answer to racism. Fuck off.
  6. The Dice Man – Luke Rhinehart. The Dice Man was amusing enough, but it’s also sexist and pointless and trashy.
  7. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett. How is this novel problematic? Let me count the ways. A narrative that makes a disabled boy magically better by The Power of Nature; that says depression is just a failure to think happy thoughts; that uses its female heroine only as a way to make sure the male line continues in strength and health. Fantastic.
  8. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller. I was far too young when I first read this; I didn’t get it at all, and now it’s probably spoiled for life for me.
  9. On – Adam Roberts. I knew there was a reason this was in the second-hand bookshop (which is invariably where bad science fiction goes to die). It’s one of those books that prioritises experimentation above story, and becomes dry and sterile as a result. A shame, because Jack Glass is so good!
  10. Kraken – China Mieville. I love most of Mieville’s work, which is probably why Kraken sticks out as such a disappointment. It’s another one that puts its literary project above its story, and turns out something that doesn’t really succeed at either.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)